Fishermen and researchers are working together to zero in on ways to keep West Coast fisheries from threatening endangered seabirds.
A recent study found longline fishermen for sablefish, or blackcod, can greatly reduce their chances of tangling with endangered short-tailed albatross and other seabirds through a combination of methods that fishermen say are easy to incorporate.
“The real hope is that we have a thriving fishery that has fewer impacts on albatrosses and other sea birds and that we have options and tools for fishermen to use that are practical and help them fish better,” said Amanda Gladics, lead author of the study and a coastal fisheries specialist based in Astoria with Oregon State University’s Oregon Sea Grant program.
Oregon and Washington state vessels in the sablefish longline fisheries spool out miles of horizontal line set with baited hooks. Conflicts occur when seabirds, expecting an easy meal, dive down to snatch the bait and hook themselves instead.
Besides the economic impact of losing bait to hungry birds, there is the ever-present fear that if too many endangered seabirds get harmed, fishery restrictions or even closures could follow. Such fears exist across fisheries where gear and animals clash.
This year, the fishermen and others involved in the highly lucrative Dungeness crab fisheries in Oregon and Washington state started collaborating with researchers, biologists, fishery managers and gear manufacturers to figure out ways to avoid entangling whales in crab lines, hoping to address the issue before it becomes a major problem.
The bycatch — accidentally catching a species not being targeted by fishing gear — of seabirds in longline fisheries is a conservation concern around the world. An estimated 160,000 seabirds are killed in longline fisheries worldwide each year.
Albatrosses are especially vulnerable: Of the 22 species, 15 are threatened with extinction. They take a long time to reach breeding age, often not laying eggs until they are 5 to 10 years old, and, then, only laying an egg a year or every other year, Gladics said. It doesn’t take much to make a deep cut in these birds’ populations. Fishermen have to report all hooked short-tailed albatross to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.
A common solution to keep birds away from gear is to string up brightly-colored rubber streamer lines, or “bird scaring lines,” that flutter above the sunken, baited longlines, creating a visual barrier. But Gladics said it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution.
The way fishermen use their gear can vary with conditions and location. Areas with strong currents, scavengers near the bottom, or more scavengers near the top can mean lines need to carry more weight so they’ll sink quickly, or a float to make sure they don’t sink too fast or too far.
“The solutions really have to be tailored for these different characteristics that fishermen are working under,” Gladics said.
The study found that if streamer lines are used in combination with other methods, like setting hooks at night when birds are less active and getting baited longlines to sink quickly, the likelihood that an albatross will try to grab bait drops considerably.
“There’s collateral damage that could be avoided by experimentation or research that could make (a fishery) better,” said Al Pazar, a commercial fisherman and captain of a research boat for hire based out of Florence who has worked with Gladics and other researchers and groups over the years to address issues around seabird bycatch. “That’s where collaboration comes in.”
Issues like albatross mortality can shut multimillion-dollar fisheries down, he said. “Fishermen want to perpetuate their business and their stocks … so we’re quite interested in making it better.”
The solutions proposed in the study are the type that don’t get in a fisherman’s way, he said, easy for crews to adopt and relatively inexpensive for vessel owners to incorporate. Fishermen, in fact, suggested night fishing as a method of avoiding interactions with albatross.
“It’s not just a need, I think, it’s an obligation to minimize this kind of interaction,” Pazar said.